REVIEW: A Safe and Sustainable World
Pioneers in sustainability
The intriguing history of the New Alchemy Institute

Reviewed by Josh Anchors


A Safe and Sustainable World: The Promise of Ecological Design

Book details:
Nancy Jack Todd; Island Press, 2005; $28.95
ISBN: 1-55-963778-1
232 pp.

purchase now

August 15, 2005: One summer in the early 1970s, Hilde Maingay telephoned the Cape Cod agricultural extension agent to ask about the average yields of vegetables and grains on the Cape. The agent told her that the Cape, with its beds of glacial till, couldn’t produce anything besides cranberries and some strawberries. Hilde hung up the phone with a shrug and walked outside to her extremely productive organic gardens. “If I hadn’t already grown an abundance of vegetables on our land,” she noted soon after her talk with the agent, “I should have stopped gardening and gone into the construction business” (p. 26).

Sprinkled with amusing anecdotes like this, Nancy Jack Todd’s A Safe and Sustainable World is the story of the New Alchemy Institute (NAI), a small non-profit research and education organization with the goal of exploring ways to create a safer and more sustainable world. It leads the reader through the ups and downs of an innovative and highly influential institution and shows how visionaries coalesced around critical environmental issues of the day.

The concept of NAI began in the San Diego living room of John and Nancy Jack Todd in 1969, just when the world was embracing the need for Earth Day. Groups of students, professors, and community members frequently joined the Todds for informal evening seminars to investigate how basic human needs—food, shelter, energy—could be met with less impact on the environment. Many of the participants thought that basic land sustainability was achievable, but in an age before the popularization of intensive organic agriculture, green architecture, and alternative energy, they wondered how.

John Todd’s answer: try it, and prove scientifically that it can be done.

The first step in this process, after a move across the country to Cape Cod and much planning and sweat, was the installation of what was then considered a very hip construction: the geodesic dome. “In the course of a summer Sunday afternoon in 1971,” writes Todd, “as children ran and shouted and adults worked and talked, sustained on infusions of beer, we had our first New Alchemy dome raising” (p. 14).

This modest and somewhat idyllic beginning, however, may disguise the seriousness and ambition of NAI researchers, as well as the precision of their scientific inquiry. The dome was soon surrounded by experimental organic gardens, compost piles, fields of wheat, aquaculture ponds, windmills, and solar-algae ponds. Volunteers began coming en masse on Saturdays to learn, work, and bathe in the energy of innovation. Extensive greenhouse-like bioshelters were constructed, first on Cape Cod and then on Prince Edward Island. The projects were vast, the energy was endless, and the soils kept getting richer and richer.

Though much of what NAI helped discover and publicize no longer seems as novel, it must be remembered that a cross-disciplinary approach to the sciences was not widely accepted at the time. The New Alchemists were trying to prove that nature could be used as a model for human-made systems by integrating aquaculture, agriculture, forestry, and wind and solar energy. “Where we differed from mainstream science,” writes Todd, “was in our focus on sustainability, protection, and restoration—and in freedom from the corporate funding that controls so much scientific inquiry. Otherwise Bill and John and their colleagues understood only too well that any scientific casualness on our part could undermine and betray underlying goals of the Institute” (78).

Detailed accounts of many NAI research projects are included in A Safe and Sustainable World, as well as blueprints and diagrams that help chart both the evolution of the Institute and the evolution of sustainability and green architecture in the U.S. The charming photos interspersed throughout the book are enough to make any sustainability enthusiast yearn to have spent a few weeks at NAI, where long-haired scientists got their hands dirty in the name of good living.

More anecdotes of the nitty-gritty life and characters at the Institute may have helped make for a smoother, less technical read, but Todd nonetheless succeeds in conveying the resourceful spirit and unique dynamism of NAI.

The final chapters of this book discuss Ocean Arks International, the organization that John and Nancy Jack Todd launched after the New Alchemy Institute closed in 1991. Today, Ocean Arks applies natural systems thinking from NAI to concrete environmental problems, restoring polluted waters through biologically based living technologies called Ecomachines and Pond Lake Restorers. In 2001, Ocean Arks was contracted by Tyson Foods to help bring a large wastewater lagoon into compliance with EPA regulations.

Thus the legacy of the New Alchemy Institute continues. True to their name, they are indeed helping transform and purify nature through their own contemporary breed of alchemy. They may not conjure gold from metal, as the ancient alchemists tried to do, but who needs gold when there are so many other pressing issues at stake?

Josh Anchors is a beekeeper, novelist, and outdoor guide from central Maine.